explain the siginficance of his speech.
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This famous speech is a testament to Hamlet’s tendency to become wrapped up in his own thoughts, regardless of his surroundings. In the middle of the urgent business of revenge, Hamlet takes the time to explore the nature of death and human life with a subtlety and eloquence that renders the speech unforgettable. Think of his brain as a sort of obsessive problem-solving machine, a focused, powerful instrument that exhausts one subject and then another indiscriminately in short-term bursts – now theater, now death, now sex, now filial duty – and that can only with great difficulty (if at all) focus on a longer-term plan, such as, “I must kill Claudius.”
So what is “To be or not to be” about, anyway? This is an enormous question. Entire books have been written on the speech, most recently Douglas Bruster’s To Be or Not To Be, and critical consensus as to its nature is far from settled. Most casual readers of Hamlet take the speech to be, at its simplest level, a contemplation of suicide. Hamlet is saying, in effect, “Wouldn’t it be nice to die? We don’t know what to expect after death, though, and so that keeps us alive. We would rather suffer the woes we know, painful as they are, than go on to possible woes we cannot conceive of.” But of whom is he speaking? Himself, or human beings in general? In other words, the speech can be thought of as a general contemplation of the human condition rather than a specific expression of a desire to die. In an interview in the Atlantic Monthly, the famous Shakespearean Harold Bloom offers an idiosyncratic reading of the speech along the latter lines: “It is a testimony, indeed, to the power of the mind over a universe of death, symbolized by the sea, which is the great hidden metaphor.” You can read more about this interpretation in his book, Hamlet: Poem Unlimited.
This speech, which is really tangential to the action, threatens to dominate most readings of Act Three.